It’s Just A Fiery Ball of Metal! The Impiety of Being Right Too Soon

Sometimes it’s not good to be first. The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras certainly found that to be true, after he was charged with impiety for teaching that the heavenly bodies were rocky balls whirling in the ether, fiery (and visible) because of their rapid rotation. He also held that the sun was a fiery metal ball, and the moon shone by reflection.


To go back a little, Anaxagoras came from Iona, modern-day Turkey, and probably lived from 500-428 BCE. Ionian philosophers before him, such as Anaximenes, had been inquiring into the nature of matter. (Anaximenes held that matter was essentially air, denser or thinner in different things.) Presumably they influenced his scientific approach to the world around him.

He seems to have had property and influence, and was born into an aristocratic family, but divested himself of these to pursue knowledge. He moved to Athens, where he became friends with the politician Pericles, whom he tutored, as well as the dramatist Euripides. He was one of the pre-Socratics, and made Athens a centre of philosophy.

Anaxagoras held that matter was conserved, since it had all been there since the beginning, in extremely small fragments. (He seems to have been an atomist.) The power of Mind, or Reason (nous), ordered these particles into the world and everything in it. Just like scientists today, he held that matter could never really be created or destroyed, merely changing its form. Mind, to him, was the First Cause, which ordered the cosmos.

He sought rational explanations for phenomena like rainbows, eclipses, and meteors. He also was the first to realize that the Milky Way was a dense concentration of stars in the sky. Of course, Anaxagoras wasn’t perfect – he thought the Earth was flat, held in place by “strong air”. Earthquakes were the result of disturbances in the air supporting the Earth.



It would be easy to make this into a story of a brave scientific pioneer faced with people who still thought that rainbows were how Zeus’ messenger Iris travelled to Earth, and that sun was a brilliant man in a chariot driving across the sky. But, as with Socrates, politics played a part in the charges of impiety against him.

Anaxagoras’ former student, Pericles, was an important figure with many enemies, and they may well have decided to discredit Pericles by attacking the person who taught him. Plutarch (1st century CE) tells us:

And Diopeithes brought in a bill providing for the public impeachment of such as did not believe in the gods, or who taught doctrines regarding the heavens, directing suspicion against Pericles by means of Anaxagoras. (Parallel LIves: Pericles)

According to Plutarch, Pericles got his former tutor to leave the city. Other sources say he was sentenced to death, and put in jail. However, he either paid a fine of five talents of silver (a very large sum) and was banished, or else Pericles managed to intervene and have the death sentence lifted.

After he left Athens, he founded a school at Lampsacus, on the eastern side of the Hellespont. (It seems an odd place for philosophy – it was famed for its cult of the god Priapus.) He lived out his days peacefully there, and the anniversary of his death became a holiday for schoolchildren. The citizens also put up a statue to MInd and Truth to honour him.

Later Influence

Aristotle praised Anaxagoras’ theory of Mind, but both he and Plato wanted the Nous to be ethical, whereas Anaxagoras did not feel the need to make his ordering principle a moral one as well. (The MacTutor site goes on to point out that Anaxagoras’ organizing principle is closer to Isaac Newton’s mechanical universe.)

As with many of the pre-Socratic philosophers, his works survive in fragments, and in bits copied by others. As well as in the link I’ve given, there are many books on his writings and influence. He turned his mind to geology, astronomy, mathematics, and possibly an early form of perspective drawing.

His Mind or Reason had a truly universal application; he did not consider Earth unique, but assumed that there were many more in the cosmos:

Men were formed and other animals which have life; the men too have inhabited cities and cultivated fields as we do; they have also a sun and a moon and the rest (of the stars) as we have, and their earth produces for them many things of various kinds.

(If you like the image at the top, click here.)


4 thoughts on “It’s Just A Fiery Ball of Metal! The Impiety of Being Right Too Soon

  1. tuckedintoacorner

    I’d never heard of Anaxagoras, and quite enjoyed this: science meets history. An excellent combination, and your writing style of it is good – understandable and engaging.

    (You will find that I’m quite fond of the Ancient Greeks)

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Stellar and Lunar: Roundup 7 | tuckedintoacorner

  3. Pingback: Helios: He Who Gladdens Mortals – WE ARE STAR STUFF

Comments are closed.